COLUMBIA - Dressed in civilian clothes, three Army officers watch as their tutor writes Arabic script across the board.
"You want to say, 'Turn left,'" the instructor says. All three men reply: "Liff yasaar. Liff yasaar. Liff yasaar."
The officers - combat veterans on track to lead troops again, most likely in the Middle East - are part of a pilot program that is sending 21 Army officers to graduate school to learn about foreign cultures, business practices and languages, such as Arabic. Next year, 200 will follow in their footsteps.
Instead of being perplexed by road signs, engineering plans and simple conversations, the Army wants its leaders armed with solid language skills.
"We're trying to develop officers to be strategic thinkers and creative managers ... who are culturally aware and have some language capability," said Col. Mark Patterson, who is in charge of policy for developing the Army officer corps. "It's a turning point for the Army, in that we are recognizing ... that graduate school is a critical tool for us to broaden officers' experience."
The three officers at the University of South Carolina are enrolled at the Moore School of Business, which boasts one of the nation's best international business graduate programs. The men will spend two years in the classroom and five months in language training overseas to earn their master's degrees.
Maj. David Hibner, a 32-year-old combat engineer from Michigan City, Ind., said the program offers a chance to learn from fellow students, in addition to their professors.
The faculty, staff and 106 students in the class represent 75 countries, including Moldova, Turkey, India, Brazil, China, Japan, Sweden and Germany.
Studying alongside Maj. Hibner are Maj. Levi Dunton, a 32-year-old Apache helicopter pilot from Chewelah, Wash., and Capt. George Walter, a 31-year-old combat engineer from Edisto Island.
Their courses, which began in July, include global business issues, international management and business practices around the world.
The Army is footing the bill but caps the annual tuition costs at $13,000.
All three officers said the classes will bolster their abilities to serve in any foreign country but particularly in the Arabic-speaking world.